Love Letter

The Ocean Needs a Love Song

by James Sturz
Hawaii All photos by James Sturz.

Fathom readers may remember the Underjungle excerpt that ran in August, when my novel had just come out. A tale of love, loss, family, and war — set entirely underwater — Underjungle is a story about the pressures inside and around us, far from our terrestrial mess. Sometimes, I like to say it’s War and Peace, but three-thousand feet deeper. And considerably shorter. And maybe a little funnier, too. But it’s also about our deep connection to the ocean. My hope in writing Underjungle was that if I could show readers what it’s like to inhabit the ocean world, they’d love it and want to protect it, without feeling they’re being told what to do. There will never be any real conservation if the ocean is only something we study. Our relationship with it needs to be more intimate. The ocean needs a love song. And also sometimes a lament.

I spent a few months touring the U.S. with my book, mostly on the coasts. Since I’m especially fond of the ones where the water’s warmer, this included Honolulu, where the Explorers Club Hawaii Chapter sponsored an evening at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki, a private beachfront club dating back to 1908. (An evening of mai tais and leis, pupus and books.) To facilitate my visit, I stayed at Kaimana Beach Hotel, built in 1963, renovated in 2021, and just a three-minute walk away. Hawaii visitors may know “Kaimana” is the Hawaiian word for diamond, after Diamond Head, the nearby volcanic cone that’s a popular hiking destination and one of the most recognizable landmarks in the state. But “kaimana” also means “power of the ocean.” So embracing that power, while I talked about the ocean and my book, became the focus of my stay.

Do I start with my room, and its view; the beach from my balcony; or the sense of wonderment and peace I felt staying so close to the water, in one of few boutique hotels in Waikiki that’s directly on the sand? What I like most about Kaimana is that it’s on a Sans Souci beach, a locals’ favorite at Waikiki’s southern end, where few of the island’s thronging tourists go.

When the ocean is part of the hotel room.

To write Underjungle, I spent a lot of time underwater — scuba diving and free diving, so I could sink down, and think about what it’s like to live in the ocean, where everything in your world — minerals, food, mates, ideas, and songs — would surround you. They’d flow to you, just like the currents, saturating and engulfing you, until you became a part of their movement, too.

Which means I’ve been neglecting my surfing skills. So one of the things I appreciated most about Kaimana was the Kai Sallas Pro Surf School on its ground floor. The school’s the brainchild of Waikiki-born and -raised Kai Sallas, who won his first longboard world-championship at age 42 in 2023 (his Kai Sallas Longboard Co. also designs and makes boards), so maybe it’s a reminder to us all that it’s never too late to try — whether that means conquering a wave with skill and grace or trying to conserve the ocean and our planet. The North Shore is where the best surfers go, but I was happy to hone my skills on Waikiki’s beginner waves.

The author hits the waves.

The following morning, I took to the water again on an outrigger canoe with Kekoa Kekumano and his Kapua Waʻa Experiences, which is also based at the hotel, and we rode different sets of waves, paddling hard when Kekoa advised, and then letting them take us, whooshing past Waikiki’s favorite surf spots. In Underjungle, the music in my book is the paeans and psalms my underwater creatures sing to one another to communicate. But Kekoa had a waterproof speaker, so we listened to his medley of Hawaiian hits, remixed to the improvised sounds of our grunts, hollers, splashes, and occasional squeals.

Afterwards, I returned to Kaimana to its Hau Tree restaurant, named for the broad-branched tree in its lanai that preceded the hotel, back when the lot was the Victorian home of prominent Waikiki clothiers, and Robert Louis Stevenson was a frequent visitor. I figured I’d burnt enough calories for a modest fish sandwich and ahi tuna appetizer, but I regret not paying closer attention to the cocktail menu before ordering the house Bloody Mary, which came garnished with cubes of Spam.

Just like its beach, Hau Tree is popular among locals, so I returned there for dinner on the final night of my stay. In Underjungle, my sea creatures never come to the surface, so all they know of it comes from their imagination. Would they have known what to make of trout and flying fish roe, adorned with osetra caviar, or seared opah belly? Maybe. But not the simplicity of the now-empty beach, mottled by shadows cast by tiki torches, with Waikiki’s glowing lights in the far distance, like the edge of a pearlescent oyster somehow suspended in the air.

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